picture of the day
Credit: Image: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Oct 16, 2007
Titan's Strange Atmosphere
Titan's atmosphere has scientists puzzled. Unlike all other large
moons, it has an atmosphere. And that atmosphere is the densest of
any terrestrial planet after Venus. It's also far more extensive
than Venus's, stretching out to about 880 km. The haze layers seen
in the image above reach a height of 400 km above Titan.
The plethora of
puzzles evokes contrary guesses at answers from scientists.
Toby Owens, principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, surmised: "What we've got is a very primitive
atmosphere that has been preserved for 4.6 billion years.
Titan gives us the chance for cosmic time travel . . . going
back to the very earliest days of Earth when it had a
The New Scientist, in its November 6, 2004 issue, supposed:
“Titan appears to have lost much of its original atmosphere.
The moon has an unusually high abundance of nitrogen-15,
compared with the lighter isotope nitrogen-14. That could be
explained if most of the atmosphere had evaporated into
space, a process in which the nitrogen-14 would have escaped
more easily than nitrogen-15. What could cause such a loss
is unknown, but it would mean that Titan once had an
atmosphere 40 times as thick as Earth's - making it a dwarf
version of a gas planet."
An earlier conjecture expected to find oceans of methane
thought necessary to replace its continual loss from the
upper atmosphere over the presumed age of Titan – more than
4 billion years.
The Electric Universe views the puzzles of Titan's
atmosphere as evidence of its youth. There is no need for a
methane ocean if the moon is young. Because moons are born
episodically in "electrical parturition" events, they will
not be all the same age nor have the same composition. The
striking disparity in nitrogen isotopes tells us more about
the way planetary atmospheres are formed than how they
evolve in isolation. Several processes in the plasma
discharge model of planet birth will have significant
effects on their atmospheres. The primary variation in
composition comes from the source and depth of the ejection
from the parent planet. In addition, the plasma gun effect
(seen now ejecting material from Io into space) is known
from laboratory tests to be a copious source of neutrons.
The neutrons may be captured and change isotopic ratios or
generate radioactive species and in that process transmute
elements in the ejected material.
Also, the strong electric field in an ejection event can
accelerate charged particles and transmute elements. For
example, nitrogen-14 can capture an electron to become
carbon-14. Carbon-14 decays by very weak beta decay back to
nitrogen-14, with a half-life of approximately 5,730 years.
If the age of Titan’s atmosphere can be measured in
thousands of years instead of billions, then a significant
amount of nitrogen-14 may still be locked up on Titan as
Another little-known process is the catalytic nuclear
conversion of nitrogen to carbon monoxide. The intrinsic
mass/energy difference between the nitrogen molecule and the
carbon monoxide molecule is quite small. Nitrogen-14
molecules, in a hot plasma and in the presence of a catalyst
such as iron, have been demonstrated to convert to carbon
monoxide molecules. Both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide
have been discovered in Titan’s atmosphere.
Furthermore, several mechanisms in plasma discharges sort
material into regions of like isotopes, elements, or
compounds. A moon that forms from only part of the ejected
material may have a composition quite different from the
remainder of the material.
A new moon ejected into a system of pre-existing moons will
likely disrupt that system. Close passages to other moons
will result in electrical interactions as the entire system
adjusts to reach "least interaction" orbits. These further
interactions will exchange and transmute material on all the
moons involved, electrically scarring their surfaces in the
A final puzzle was reported by Emily Lakdawalla of The
Planetary Society: “One thing that may have helped the probe
last a long time was that it appeared to stay unexpectedly
warm. At an elevation of only 50 kilometers (about 30 miles)
above the surface, her interior was still at a balmy 25 C
(77 F), despite the outside temperature being a frigid -180
C (-290 F). [Project scientist Jean-Pierre] Lebreton wasn't
ready to say what this might mean. It could be
over-performance of the spacecraft, but it could also mean a
wide variety of unexpected things about the atmosphere.”
If Titan, like Venus, is a young, recently ejected body, it
may still be cooling from its "natal heat."
Please visit our
The Electric Sky
and The Electric Universe